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Opinion 'Sending Gardaí clubbing will not reduce drug harms, minister'

Dr Cian Ó Concubhair and Dr Ian Marder respond to comments on drug use made in the Dáil this week.

LAST WEEK, MINISTER for Justice Simon Harris made several critical and morally charged statements about ‘recreational’ drug use. He also announced an increase in anti-drug policing operations to catch recreational users and dealers in pubs and nightclubs.

That this intervention coincides with the announcement of the Citizens’ Assembly on Drugs Use is something of a contradiction. It does not appear to be underpinned by a considered piece of work by the Policing Authority, the Department of Justice, or even An Garda Síochána – whose silence is noteworthy.

Indeed, this is not based on the best available evidence of harm reduction or policing practice, but on politics.

At this critical moment for Irish drug policy reform, we must explore the lack of evidence for Minister Harris’s approach, and challenge the claim that people who use drugs bear a high level of moral responsibility for drug-related violence.

Will proposed Garda ‘sting’ operations work?

Placing ‘undercover’ (i.e. plain clothes) Gardaí in locations where drugs are believed to be consumed is not new. For example, Gardaí undertake drug detection operations at music festivals like Electric Picnic. Many people are prosecuted for possession of prohibited drugs at these events.

Yet, there is no evidence that enforcement reduces drug consumption or improves health at music festivals. A growing number of TDs, including the Minister for Justice himself, acknowledge that using the police and criminal courts to respond to drug use does not reduce harm.

If there is no evidence that such operations are beneficial, then why do Gardaí invest their limited resources in this way?

Ignoring the (strong) possibility that Gardaí are well-meaning but unaware of evidence, there are other possible if cynical, rationales for such widespread police tactics.

What these routine Garda operations do guarantee is significant levels of drug offence ‘detection.’

For offences reported by victims, there is usually a significant gap between the number of complaints and the offences solved. But drug sellers and users do not complain about their offences to the Gardaí. This means that for Garda crime statistics, drug ‘detections’ give Gardaí an almost perfect crime resolution rate.

Like other jurisdictions, Garda performance is routinely evaluated by crude detection rates. This approach is problematic for several reasons, not least the unreliability of police statistics. It also assumes that the police should prioritise ‘crime fighting’ over proactive community engagement.

Finally, it creates perverse incentives to focus on ‘easy wins’ (such as catching drug users at festivals or in clubs), rather than resourcing more complex, but less quantifiable, activities, such as preventing domestic abuse or building relationships with minority ethnic communities.

Who is morally responsible for drug-related violence?

The Minister claimed there is a “direct link” between “snorting a line or taking a pill and murder, assault, criminality and misery.” Plenty of violence is linked to the black market in drugs like cocaine, MDMA and cannabis.

However, it is as superficial here to blame individual consumers, as it is to blame consumers of clothing, technologies or food for the violence, abuse and exploitation in their supply chains.

Is the objective of the Minister’s comments perhaps to reduce demand for drugs by making consumers feel guilty and ashamed?

There have also been efforts to shame consumers for the harms in the supply chains of the legal products named above. Despite significant investment, these campaigns have not eradicated exploitative and abusive conditions in those ‘legitimate’ markets. Furthermore, there is no evidence that this effectively reduces demand in black markets.

Ignoring the question of effectiveness at reducing demand, is it a sound moral criticism to say that people who use drugs are implicated in murder?

On its face, like with consumption of cheap clothing made through exploitative labour practices, drug users are certainly in some way complicit in related violence. Still, the rampant violence and exploitation associated with illegal drug markets is intimately connected to their illegality.

That some drugs can only be produced, traded and consumed illegally is a policy choice. We know from decades of research that the ‘war on drugs’ itself is the cause of many of the most severe harms.

As such, the Irish State and other Governments are deeply implicated in drug violence by pursuing policies of prohibition.

Prohibition, public health and safety

Governments, like Minister Harris’s, routinely defend their prohibitionist record by claiming they have to criminalise drugs to protect public health.

However, the evidence is overwhelming that prohibition has failed to protect public health. For example, were harm reduction and decriminalisation pursued, we would expect to see fewer overdoses and drug related deaths, less disease transmission and a reduction in drug users in prisons. Efforts to establish effective harm reduction services might face fewer obstacles.

Some in the Irish Government might argue that prohibition was still the best policy option available when initiated. But when Ireland passed the Misuse of Drugs Act in 1977 – our first step into the ‘war on drugs’ – there was powerful evidence from the US’s experimentation with alcohol prohibition that criminalisation failed on public health and safety grounds.

Consumption continued, and health outcomes remained poor due to black market preferences for higher-potency alcohol products. Alcohol prohibition in the US 100 years ago also created a highly lucrative, violent black market, enriching those who formed the ‘organised crime’ mafia gangs. This pattern has been repeated on a global, and far more destructive, scale over the five-decades long ‘war on drugs’.

Is drug consumption inherently wrong?

Others will argue that prohibition was, and remains, the right policy choice because drugs and drug-taking are evil.

The view that drug use is intrinsically evil originates from the same religious puritanism that drove the US’s temperance movement, which led to its prohibition of alcohol from 1920–32. The aim of this moral position is a utopian ‘drug-free world’.

This view is far less popular in Ireland now than in the recent past as most now recognise it is unachievable, and for some it is undesirable. However, the minister’s “frustration” at the alleged “growing social acceptance” of illegal drug consumption suggests that politicians still feel an urge to pander to those who hold such beliefs.

Yet, drug use long predated criminalisation: cocaine was once accessible from pharmacies in many jurisdictions, and some drugs we know as illicit today were only criminalised in the lifetimes of some readers.

For some ‘drug free world’ advocates, the evil lies in the intrinsic harmfulness of the substances we criminalise. However, there is no strong relationship between the dangerousness of a substance and its legal status. Potentially dangerous substances such as morphine are legal to obtain – under strict clinical conditions.

Meanwhile, most Irish people who consume illegal drugs never develop problematic use.

Indeed - though it is taboo to point out - for many of these hundreds of thousands of Irish people, their ‘recreational’ drug use was an enjoyable and valuable experience.


Aside from these criticisms of Minister Harris’s comments, they come at a particularly unhelpful moment. The forthcoming Citizens’ Assembly is a significant opportunity to re-evaluate our legal and social response to drugs and depart from the destructive failure of the ‘war on drugs.’

If the Government wishes to contribute constructively to that debate, it should stick to the evidence. If it wishes to blame consumers for drug violence, it should first acknowledge its central role in creating and perpetuating the black market in drugs.

Dr Cian Ó Concubhair is Assistant Professor in Criminal Justice at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. Dr Ian D. Marder is Assistant Professor in Criminology at Maynooth University School of Law and Criminology. Declaration of Interests: Dr Cian Ó Concubhair was convicted of cannabis cultivation for sale or supply in 2010.


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Dr Cian Ó Concubhair & Dr Ian D. Marder
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